Will Cameron's deal with Merkel placate his party's sceptics?

German agreement to relax the working time directive is a real concession but maybe Tory backbencher

An outline is emerging of a deal between David Cameron and Angela Merkel over plans to revise the treaties that underpin the European Union.

It appears that over lunch at the end of last week, two leaders discussed the possibility of Britain refraining from serious obstruction to German plans for new rules governing how euro member countries manage their budgets. In exchange, Germany would not object to Britain seeking relaxation of the working time directive - the EU-wide regulations designed to limit the number of hours per week employees work and protect entitlements such as paid leave.

Leaving aside the question of whether Britain would really be better off or happier with a more dilute version of the directive (the UK already has the right to opt out of aspects of it) and looking purely in terms of what is diplomatically feasible for the UK, this seems like a decent compromise. Britain is not a euro member country and already has a reputation for surly reluctance when it comes to the "European project". The way the European debate has unfolded in Westminster in recent weeks has left our continental partners in no doubt that we do not see ourselves as integral players in the EU game. We want concessions on "repatriation of power" - largely so that the prime minister can show symbolic trophies to an implacably euro-phobic wing of his party - and must threaten to be obstructive in order to get them.

For countries that are in the euro and for whom the debate about fiscal integration and more rigorous rules of enforcement is existential, Britain's implicit threat to hold the process hostage must be classified somewhere on a spectrum between absurd and vindictive. David Cameron surely understands this (no doubt Merkel made it clear). He cannot veto a new EU treaty incorporating new eurozone rules without very seriously damaging Britain's diplomatic relations on the continent. What he needs is some kind of concession that is big enough to look like a loosening of ties with Brussels so that, when a revised treaty is agreed by the European Council, Tory backbenchers don't go berserk and demand a referendum on it.

The Working Time Directive is a good candidate. The Tories have always hated European influence on labour protection. Conveniently, the Lib Dems are also hostile to this particular bit of European regulation, so there is no risk of coalition tension. Merkel can be relaxed about it since it is marginal to her concerns and has no immediate bearing on budget discipline in the euro zone.

So the big question is whether it would be enough to persuade Tory backbenchers that Cameron is honouring his pledge to use treaty negotiations as the vehicle for repatriation of powers. If they sneer at this deal and insist that the Prime Minister go back for more, it would suggest that compromise is not really on their agenda at all and what they are really after is a kind of show-down that would make Britain's participation in EU structures as currently configured impossible.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.